Last month, 240,000 students and their teachers returned to the corridors of New York City’s 500 public high schools. Gothamist sat down with teachers at different stages of their careers—some entering service, some with a few years under their belt, and a couple of vets. We talked about why they chose to teach, how they feel about the government's education policy and their thoughts on the charter system and the United Federation of Teachers. We wanted to know: are the teachers all right?

We'll run a different teacher profile each day this week (read them all here). Today we have Chris, who is entering his first year as a special education teacher with a specialization in English, teaching in Williamsburg.

My aunts both taught in New York City for 30 years, both taught in Jamaica before that. They had a huge impact on me. I lived in New Jersey as a child and every morning I would go with them from East Orange over to school. When I was old enough, I took the train by myself.

I taught at an Episcopical school in Charlotte, North Carolina as a chaplain, while finishing my seminary education. Through seminary, I knew I wanted to get involved in education. I couldn’t figure out exactly how it would work because whenever I tried to work solely in a church, it didn’t feel complete. It didn’t feel wrong, but it didn’t feel like “Oh, I’ve made it all work.” I started working with a juvenile justice organization. That was cool but I didn’t feel like I was doing everything I was supposed to be doing.

Whereas when I’m in the classroom, it feels like, “This is what I’m supposed to do.” I always wanted to come back to New York City, I didn’t know in this capacity, but I’m really happy to be doing this.

Working with young people who are caught up in the court system, the school to prison-pipeline, I see how much education can be a valuable resource for breaking out of that cycle. If you are not able to make enough income, you are likely to end up in a bad outcome. If you are not able to access the skills which can help you to see what your calling in life is, what your vocation is, you are going to get caught up. If you are someone of means, you have a safety net. If you do not have a safety net to start out with, you're done. I saw that happen time and time again with so many of my peers.

I’m not one of those people who is just getting an education to teach for a few years. I feel like I want to do this for the rest of my life. Even if I’m just investing myself into a class of 30 every year, I’m not saying I’m going to save them, but it’s going to have an impact. I’ve heard too many people talk about negative teachers in their lives, so I imagine the opposite has to be true.

In my summer training, I learned that being positive means the world in this line of work. I’m sure you have to be positive in most fields, but I saw how—and my positivity is deeply rooted in faith. I don’t go around hitting people with a Bible or anything, but I very much try to live in a way that is pleasing in God’s eyes.

One of my students got kicked out of the summer school program. He helped another kid get jumped, pretty much. I remember the last time I saw him in the program. That day, we handed out progress reports, and he said, “I’m going to make sure I put my best foot forward.” At the time, I really wanted to believe him, but in retrospect, it made me think about this quote that I believe is attributed to Soren Kierkegaard, “Love believes all things and yet is never deceived.” I was really with him when he said, “I’m going to do my best.” But the floor was not pulled out from under my feet when he didn’t. What I take from that is, he’s a kid, he’s going to mess up, but I also felt, “Look man, you’ve got to do better. As you become a man, your decisions have much more weight. This is not the full potential of who you are.” And I had a chance to share that with him afterwards when he was sitting in the principal’s office.

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(Jennifer Preissel / Gothamist)

My hope is to help [my students] to feel successful. For a freshman, it’s helping them transition into high school. For an 11th grader, helping them to understand, you can do a lot with your life, no matter where you grew up or how much money you have, you can get a great education somehow. You may not be a Nobel Prize winner, but at the same time, you’ve got something to contribute, you’re not here by mistake, you’re not here just because. What is the lane you are going to fill in? How are you going to run that race well? If I can do that, then I’ve accomplished something.

I looked around and I didn’t see a lot of black men teaching. I look around and I can count on my hand—from kindergarten through a master’s program—I think I had five. Because of that, I really want to do this well. I want to take on that mantle because I see that people can’t be what they can’t see. I have taught white kids, I’ve taught kids from a variety of races and social backgrounds, but I have seen that in all their lives, it blew their mind, being in a box that doesn’t normally put us in. I want to do that, expand the narrative.

I think if you are going to go into special needs, you must have a lot of patience, because the kids can still do the work, it just might take more time. You have to be willing to show them how to do it and to be with them when they get it done. They have strengths, so many gifts to contribute—it’s all about just finding that lane. You as a teacher have to learn how your students learn and that’s how they’re going to get it.

My son was born the week I moved up here. I’ve been learning how to be a teacher and how to be a father. I have been new kinds of tired, I didn’t realize there were these levels of exhausted. You learn to sort the sense from the nonsense—when to say, “I don’t have time for this.” My son is now three months. You appreciate every single day. When I talk to my own parents, they say, “It’s going to go fast.” All of those kids in my classroom are going to be my kids. I’m not their parent, but I’m going to cherish every day.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jennifer Preissel is a New York City high school teacher.